Despatches from Istanbul 2: five (tourist-related) low points


After the recent entry describing ten highlights of my visit to Istanbul, I thought I would add some balance by mentioning too a few low points of that visit.  However, Istanbul-lovers shouldn’t worry.  None of these low points concern the city itself.  Neither do they concern the city’s inhabitants.  Rather, they’re all to do with the tourists whom I met there.


School parties.  The day I entered the Blue Mosque, I was unfortunate enough to find myself in the middle of a throng of pubescent and very noisy schoolkids – Dutch ones I think.  (Accordingly, when we all sat down in an entry chamber to remove our shoes, I was engulfed in a toxic cloud of pubescent, trainer-induced foot odour.)  Meanwhile, there were dozens of parties of school-uniformed teenagers making their way around the archaeological museum at Topkapi Palace.  The girls yakked incessantly, the boys arsed about, and all of them rattled through the exhibition rooms, past the exhibits, like strings of characters in a speeded-up Benny Hill sketch.


It makes me wonder what the point is of sending schoolchildren, especially teenagers, to see anything that’s deemed to be of cultural interest.  If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that they won’t be interested in it.  And that’s because only one thing exists that youngsters that age are interested in, which is themselves.  But nonetheless, their schools still send them to these places in droves, and their sheer numbers and their endless adolescent jabber are guaranteed to drive all other visitors to distraction.


And that’s the end of my cranky-old-man diatribe for today.


The cruise ship at Istanbul Modern.  The café-bar at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art is fiendishly expensive – 14 Turkish lira for a glass of lemonade! – but diners can console themselves with the wonderful view that the café’s balcony grants them over the adjacent quayside and a good stretch of the Bosporus.  Unfortunately, when I walked in there with a friend, a gigantic cruise ship chose that moment to manoeuvre alongside the quay and berth.  If someone had suddenly and magically erected a 100-metre-high wall on the quay, the view couldn’t have been blocked any more effectively.


My friend told me that all the cruise passengers looked like Americans – the sort of Americans who, back in America, drive huge sports utility vehicles that hog the roads.  So I suppose it was appropriate that they sneaked in there and hogged the Bosporus with their big bloody ship.


Antipodean overload.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like Australians.  I have to – a whole wing of my family consists of born-and-bred Sydney-ites.  And most of the Australians I saw in Istanbul, who were presumably visiting because of the Gallipoli connection, seemed reasonably decent and well-behaved.


I’ll make an exception, though, for a group of Aussies whom I observed one evening boozing on the terrace of the Sultan Bar, around the corner from the hotel I was staying in.  They were apparently engaged in a drinking game where, as everyone got more intoxicated, the penalties for losing a round became ever more outrageous.  One participant had to go into the middle of the road outside and perform a belly dance.  Two more people had to borrow umbrellas from a pair of bemused passers-by and do a Singing in the Rain dance routine, again in the middle of the road.  A whole squad of them had to do multiple press-ups – you guessed it, in the middle of the road.  As the evening progressed, the close encounters they were having with the passing traffic grew closer and worryingly closer.


However, what really got to me after an evening or two was the music pouring out of the loudspeakers at the Sultan Bar and out of those at the Cheers Bar on the opposite side of the street.  To keep their Australian patrons happy, one bar would play Down Under by Men at Work, while the other would play Beds are Burning by Midnight Oil – for, it seemed, hours at a time.


So come on, Australia, buck up!  Write some new songs, please, so that we can get some musical variety at the pubs and hostels around the world catering for your backpackers!


General tourist dorks.  There were some silly and annoying people lurking around Istanbul’s tourist attractions.  The worst ones were probably a pair of guys in front of the Blue Mosque who were wearing baseball caps and red sweat-tops with – oh no – Tunisia emblazoned across them.  One guy was standing up on a bench, affecting frankly stupid-looking taekwondo poses with the gorgeous and venerable mosque in the background, while his mate took photographs of him.  Neither of them made good, street-credibility-enhancing ambassadors for the new democratic Tunisia.


The flight back to Tunis with Turkish Airlines.  I praised the Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, but I’m afraid I was less enthusiastic about the return trip.  This was mainly because the plane was crowded with Tunisian shopaholics making their way home and they seemed to have brought the entire contents of the Grand Bazaar on board as hand luggage.


Lockerbie bomber possibly not dead (and probably not buried in Libya if he is)


Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie that killed 270 people on board and on the ground, finally died of cancer in Tripoli at the weekend.  News of his death drew varying responses from the relatives of those who perished in the bombing.  One American lady whose daughter had been a victim said bluntly: “I hope his death was extremely painful and horrible.”


A rather more humane reaction came from Englishman Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died on flight 103.  Al-Megrahi’s passing was, he said, “a very sad event.”


If Swire sounds overly charitable toward al-Megrahi, it is because he has spent almost a quarter-century monitoring official investigations into the bombing and has concluded that the accepted version of events – that al-Megrahi put the bomb on the plane at the behest of Colonel Gaddafi, who was the western world’s number-one bogeyman at the time – stinks.  For want of a better word.


In Swire’s view, al-Megrahi was merely a fall-guy and his conviction (which was based largely on some dodgy evidence from a Maltese shopkeeper called Tony Gauci who subsequently got paid two million dollars by the US Department of Justice’s Terrorist and Violent Crime Unit) was a farce.  On the other hand, there is plenty of other evidence suggesting that the real culprits were a Lebanese / Palestinian group directed by the Iranian government, which was keen to avenge the shooting-down of Air Iran flight 655 by the US Navy cruiser Vincennes earlier on in 1988.  (This had resulted in the deaths of 290 people, including 66 children.  All the crewmembers of the Vincennes received Combat Action Ribbons afterwards.)  For whatever reason, this line of inquiry was very quickly abandoned by the American and British governments.


It isn’t just Swire who’s sceptical about these official accounts of what happened at Lockerbie.  Well-known doubters include journalists Kate Adie, John Pilger and Private Eye-editor Ian Hislop, distinguished parliamentarians Tam Dayell and Teddy Taylor, and former Church of England envoy and former terrorist hostage Terry Waite – not to mention Noam Chomsky and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Also sceptical, I would suggest, are most people who live in Scotland.  The Lockerbie bombing and its aftermath have been the biggest ongoing news story in Scotland during the last 25 years and the official findings have been picked apart again and again, in forensic detail, in the Scottish media.  And when scrutinised intensely, the claim that it was all the doings of the Libyans looks pretty unconvincing.


In 2009, the now cancer-ridden al-Megrahi was released from his Scottish prison and allowed to return to Libya under a provision in Scots law that permits the compassionate release of terminally ill prisoners.  Those who saw the Lockerbie bombing in simple black and white – Americans who unquestioningly regarded the Libyans as the villains of the piece and who refused to believe that their own government could ever (accidentally or deliberately) have made mistakes, and Britain’s gung-ho right-wing media – were apoplectic.  On the other hand, those who believed in al-Megrahi’s innocence, but who were also desperate to find out the truth about the bombing, surely had mixed emotions.  In prison, al-Megrahi had been preparing an appeal, which might have turned up some new facts about the case.  However, his return to Libya meant that this appeal never took place.


Such an appeal could have highlighted once and for all the farcical nature of his conviction, which would have caused considerable embarrassment to the American government.  It was ironic, then, that the likes of Hilary Clinton got their knickers in such a twist when the cancer-stricken Libyan was sent home.


That said, the circumstances surrounding al-Megrahi’s release were pretty grubby.  The Scottish National Party, who ran the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh, officially made the decision to let him go.  And the SNP’s justice minister, the ashen-faced Kenny MacAskill, has always parroted the line that he was simply acting in accordance with what Scots law said about compassionate release.  However, as Wikileaks have since shown, down in London the British government – at that time a Labour Party government headed by Gordon Brown – was desperate to get al-Megrahi packed off to Libya again.  However, they cravingly kept their mouths shut about the affair, hoping the resulting opprobrium would all rain down on the SNP.


After all, by this time Colonel Gaddafi had shed his pariah status and was now, officially, one of Britain’s new oil-rich best friends.  This was largely due to the meeting Gaddafi had had ‘in the desert’ in 2004 with Tony Blair, a man who was always generous with his hugs and handshakes when there were valuable resources to be tapped and lucrative business deals to be made.  Clearly, al-Megrahi’s continued imprisonment was an impediment to the burgeoning economic links between Britain and Libya and it was more than a little suspicious that he was freed at this particular time.  (I arrived in Libya to start a new job a few months after the release.  Let’s just say I met more than a few British people already working there who hadn’t expected to be around if it’d become clear to Gaddafi that al-Megrahi wouldn’t be let out of prison.)


The shit-storm in Britain and American that greeted al-Megrahi’s release in 2009 inspired an actor-writer called David Benson to pen a play about the Lockerbie bombing.  For the play’s focal point, Benson chose Dr Jim Swire, the man who’d both experienced the bombing’s emotional ordeal and observed all the legal and political machinations that followed.  Benson’s play, Lockerbie: Unfinished Business, was performed at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival, to great critical acclaim.  I was lucky enough to see it at the time.


Lockerbie: Unfinished Business works on the premise that Swire, played by Benson, is giving the audience a lecture about his experiences – from that night in 1988 when he learned of his daughter’s death on Pan Am 103 right up to al-Megrahi’s compassionate release 21 years later.  Although Swire / Benson tries to deliver his lecture in a scientific and dispassionate manner, cataloguing the known events, following the course of the investigations and measuring the reliability of their findings (and finally arriving at the conclusion that al-Megrahi was set up), he disconcertingly swerves into his own personal tragedy from time to time.  Almost despite himself, he starts reminiscing painfully about his daughter, making plain the awful conflict going on inside him.  Because Swire has to be business-like in his quest for the truth, a great deal gets bottled up.  But occasionally it breaks out.


The play is illuminating too because it shows the journey that Swire has had to make during the last 25 years.  Once a fairly straightforward establishment type – he was educated at Eton and Cambridge – he has ended up an outsider, outraged at the cover-ups, obfuscations and general dishonesty that supposedly liberal and democratic governments, including his own one, will perpetrate when it suits their interests.


I haven’t been able to find Lockerbie: Unfinished Business on youtube, but here is a clip featuring David Benson talking about the play’s background.  I only wish more people – especially those willing to shout out their opinions about the bombing whilst being acquainted with nothing but the official American-and-British-government-sanctioned version of what happened – had been able to see it.


And while we’re on the subject, here’s what the Independent’s Robert Fisk has to say about it all.


Despatches from Istanbul 1: ten high points


When somebody informs me that they want to talk about their holiday, and show their holiday photos, my instinctive reaction is to run away and hide in a broom cupboard.  However, I’m now going to talk about a recent holiday I had in Istanbul and show some holiday snaps that I took.  Yes, that’s right, I’m a hypocrite.  Get over it.


When I sort out my impressions, and pictures, of Istanbul’s more famous attractions – the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace and the Chora Church – I’ll post them up as separate entries.  But in the meantime, here’s a Holiday Top Ten of things I experienced in Istanbul apart from those big tourist draws.


The flight to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines.  The reputation of Turkey’s national airline is on the up these days and, from the evidence of my flight to Istanbul, its growing reputation is deserved.  It was more comfortable and better staffed than any British Airways plane I’ve been on in a while, and it was miles better than what I’ve lately had to endure on Tunisair or Air France.  (In particular, the Turkish Airlines food put to shame the culinary fare I had last time on Air France, which consisted of a cup of coffee and one bland and medium-sized bun.)  One criticism, though – I know Turkish Airlines sponsor Manchester United, but I wish they didn’t ram that fact down your throat by showing supposedly-hilarious promotional clips of the team on the back-of-the-seat video screens.  The sight of Wayne Rooney wearing a Turkish Airlines pilot’s cap does not inspire confidence that you’ll reach your destination in comfort or, indeed, intact.


The view from the hotel’s rooftop terrace at breakfast-time.  I spent my breakfasts looking at a panorama of roof-scapes.  Roofs with other hotel-terraces penned in by wrought-iron railings and crowded by parasols, roofs with rows of multicoloured teardrop-shaped lamps hanging from cables and awnings, roofs with pots containing heathery plants and bonsai-sized trees, roofs with satellite dishes and gas-tanks and tall twisting chimney-pipes, roofs with exuberant growths of wisteria that trailed purple blooms down the walls…  Beyond that, on one side, I could see the pale, shimmering blueness of the Sea of Marmara.  Crowning the skyline on the other side was the Blue Mosque and half-a-dozen attendant minarets.  Birds swooped everywhere, greedy for morsels that’d been dropped by the breakfasters – gulls, coppery-coloured pigeons and evil-looking scavengers that resembled grey-and-black ravens.  Here’s what the view looked like to the west:



The Basilica Cistern.  And here is the first of two James Bond references I’ll make in this entry.  The Basilica Cistern was a location in an early 007 movie, 1963’s From Russia with Love.  A water filtration system at one time for the now-vanished Great Palace of Constantinople, and later on for Topkapi Palace (which of course still stands), this subterranean chamber covers an area of nearly 10,000 square metres and has 336 nine-metre-high marble pillars supporting its roof.  It’s capable of holding 100,000 tons of water, although today only a few feet of water cover its floor.  (The water is not, alas, populated by Bond-ian piranhas but by a few small decorative fish.)  Raised walkways allow visitors to move above the water and between the pillars.  Right at the back of the cistern are two columns whose bases have been sculpted into the faces of gorgons from Greek mythology – it’d be pleasing to say these were surrounded by tourists who’d turned to stone, but no, they were just surrounded by tourists who were still flesh-and-blood and were snapping endless photos.  My own camera, being a bit unsophisticated, didn’t take good pictures in the dark Basilica Cistern, so here’s a link to the place’s Wikipedia entry instead:


The vendors.  I always think you can judge how interesting a city is by studying the variety of pedlars and vendors hawking things in its streets.  Istanbul scored highly.  Food vendors flogged corn-on-the-cob and bagfuls of roast chestnuts around the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, while on a nearby street I saw a bloke pushing a long flat barrow loaded with pomegranates with a big iron juicer fixed at one end.  Several pedlars were selling Spirograph kits from pavement stalls.  (If you don’t know what a Spirograph is, you’d better check this:  These were immensely popular in the 1970s, though my juvenile attempts to use one usually resulted in tangled scribbles that resembled a bunch of daddy-long-legs having an orgy.)  The fronts of the pedlars’ stalls were decorated with Spirograph patterns that they’d drawn themselves – which, unlike my efforts, featured beautifully coloured and geometrically perfect configurations of hypotrochoids, epitrochoids and the like.  However, the prize for Best Street-Hawker of Istanbul must go to the indefatigable brush-and-bucket man.  Here’s a picture of him at work:



The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.  Although this museum is at the side of the tourist-infested Hippodrome, it was less crowded than the attractions close by and so offered some welcome calm on an often-hectic sightseeing circuit.  Among its attractions are the bronze doors of the Great Mosque in Cizre (patterned by craftsmen who seem to have used a giant Spirograph kit of their own), prayer rugs from 17th century Anatolia, lacquered Korans, a 19th century Ottoman writing set and a very elaborate ceramic barometer.  My favourite exhibit, however, was this Koran box from the tomb of Sultan Selim II in the late 16th century:



The ferries.  Istanbul sits on the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn inlet, so its fleet of ferryboats offer a convenient – as well as scenic – means of getting around.  Just make sure you know when your stop is coming up.  A travelling companion and I were on a ferry one morning, waiting for our destination to be announced over the P.A. system – only the boat didn’t have a P.A. system.  When we finally went down from the passenger desk, we saw our intended getting-off point receding along the shore behind us.  Incidentally, the wooden buildings that serve as terminal buildings are very sweet.  Here’s a picture of one terminal waiting room that puts me in mind of an old British railway station:



Istanbul Modern.  When you find yourself wearying of medieval mosques, palaces, churches and tombs, it’s worth making a trip to the Karakoy district and visiting the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.  Among its more striking exhibits are Olafur Eliasson’s Red Emotional Globe (2010), which is a big multi-faceted mirrorball-cum-Death-Star thing throwing out illuminated diamond shapes; Jennifer Steinkamp’s Eyecatching (2003), which consists of computer-animated, writhing, Medusa-like green trees and manages to be cool and creepy at the same time; and Tomas Saraceno’s Air-Port City (2007), which is made of nets and airbags and is suspended by cables in the middle of a room like a gigantic, bubbly sub-atomic particle.  (There was something creepy about it too – I had a feeling that if its cables began to snap, they’d go slicing across the room like razor-wire.)  I also saw one or two artistic statements about the psychological and cultural schisms caused by the division of Cyprus – I’m told that modern Turkish artists like to make a lot of those.


Haydar’s Rock Bar.  I never consider a holiday complete until I’ve managed to sniff out at least one of the local heavy metal bars, and in Istanbul’s case I was fortunate enough to discover Haydar’s Rock Bar at Balo Sk 31, off Istiklal in Taksim.  The place is crammed into a passageway beneath a giant twisting ventilation pipe, wide at one end (where most of the tables are), narrow in the middle and slightly less narrow at the other end (where the bar-counter is).  The air contains a permanent fug of cigarette smoke and a huge, black, lethal-looking speaker squats on one wall blasting out music.  The evening I was there, the place reverberated to Metallica, Pearl Jam, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and ZZ Top, which in my mind was enough to establish Haydar’s Rock Bar as Turkish heavy metal (and punk) heaven.  All right, some dork did play stuff by Chris Rea and Bon Jovi too, but I’m sure even the world’s greatest music bar suffers the occasional lapse in standards.


The Grand Bazaar.  I would normally rather gouge out one of my own eyes than go and spend a morning in a shopping mall, but Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is something else.  It’s actually an old covered market that, over the centuries, has gradually morphed into a kind of modern shopping complex, but without losing any of its traditional charm.  Exploring its 61 passages can be daunting at ground level – as they’re crowded with shoppers hunting for jewellery, antiques, metal-work, carpets, leather goods, clothes, furniture and souvenirs – but you only have to look upwards at the tiled, wooden and brick-domed ceilings to be reminded of the place’s antiquity.  And now the second James Bond reference of this entry.  I was told that my first day in Istanbul coincided with the last day of filming for a sequence set in the Grand Bazaar, which will appear in the new 007 movie, Skyfall.  So even Daniel Craig does his shopping there.



The evening view from the bridge over the Golden Horn.  At dusk – around eight o’clock – this looked especially lovely.  Lit-up mosque-domes and minarets adorned the skyline, shrouded in smoky grey-blue light.


Ye cannae change the laws o’ physics (except in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly)


We citizens of the United Kingdom are hardly in a position to lecture other countries on the fairness of their political systems.  After all, in 1979, 56.1% of British voters voted against Margaret Thatcher and she still won an outright majority in parliament and the freedom to do whatever she pleased with the country for the next four years.  In 1983, 57.6% of voters rejected her again, and again she got her big parliamentary majority and carte blanche in government for four years more.  And in 1987 the anti-Thatcher vote was 57.8% and…  You guessed it.  She got her majority yet again and embarked on yet another term of having her evil way with poor old Britain.  It seemed that despite most of us voting against her, we really couldn’t get enough of big bad Maggie.


Nonetheless, we still enjoy a chuckle at other countries’ voting systems and the unfeasibly large majorities they always seem to deliver to certain unsubtle and not-very-nice leaders.  In Europe’s nastiest regime, Belarus, the super-unsavoury Alexander Lukashenko remained in power by winning 79.67% of the vote in the December 2010 presidential election – a cool 77.11% more than the percentage won by his closest rival, Andrej Sannikau, which was 2.56%.  Nonetheless, Lukashenko was clearly upset about the fifth of the vote that he didn’t win, for he had Sannikau and six other presidential candidates arrested straight after the election.  So they won’t try that again.


Over in central Asia, meanwhile, Uzbekistani president Islam Karimov stayed in power by winning 90.77% of the vote in his country’s December 2007 elections. Uzbekistan has the highest voting age in the world, incidentally – you have to be 25 before you can cross a ballot paper there.  So while they have to live with a dodgy electoral system, Uzbekistanis are at least spared the gruesome sight of their president trying to chase the youth vote.  (Unlike in Britain, where Gordon Brown cringingly claimed to be a fan of the Arctic Monkeys and David Cameron has enthused unconvincingly about the Killers.)


But even Karimov’s electoral success pales into insignificance compared with the figures recorded, allegedly, in North Korea.  In August 2003, for instance, the late Kim Jong-Il and 686 fellow deputies were returned to the Supreme People’s Assembly with a turnout of 99.9% and with 100% of the votes in that turnout cast for them.  Wow!


Still, when it comes to elections, even the world’s craziest dictators tend to stay within the bounds of mathematical possibility.  They keep on the rational side of 100.  As far as I know, for instance, not even Robert Mugabe has claimed a turnout of 106%, in which he won 137% of the vote.


That said, last week, I read on a news website about an astounding piece of voting magic that occurred at Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly.  During a session on May 10th, 162 votes were cast regarding the complementary budget.  This was in defiance of all known laws of physics, as there were only 146 members of the assembly present at the time.


So where did those extra 16 votes come from?  Were they the result of an anomaly in Einstein’s theory of relativity?  Were they an unforeseen consequence of string theory, or super-gravity, or M-theory?  Or did someone just, you know, cheat?  Alas, it transpired that the latter explanation was the case, for a number of members opposed to the majority Ennahdha Party were seen to vote twice.  They pressed voting buttons belonging to absent colleagues as well as pressing their own.  But according to Samir Betaib, a member of the PDM (Pole Democratique Moderniste) bloc that represents various centrist, socialist and republican parties, doing this was justified:  “Some members leave their seats for some reason and ask their colleagues to vote for them.”  In other words, voting twice when there’s really only one of you is fine and dandy.


Here’s the story:


I’ve criticised the moderate-Islamist Ennahdha party before, especially for their apparent blindness towards the bullying antics of certain religious extremists.  But Ennahdha’s opponents, who make much of their own, Western-style policies about gender equality, the separation of religion and state and the like, would be advised to remember that Ennahdha didn’t just win votes in the Tunisian election because they stood for an Islamic viewpoint.  They were popular among many Tunisians because they seemed to be the party least tainted by association with the hated old regime of Ben Ali.


Whereas bending the rules in the manner demonstrated on May 10th suggests a contempt for fair-play – for democracy itself – that plenty of people would identify with Ben Ali and the bad old days of his autocratic and cynical rule.  And all the secular and Western-style credentials in the world are not to going win Ennahdha’s opponents any friends if they ignore this fact.


If you want to vote on something, guys, make an effort to actually show up.


Norwich becomes an international City of Literature… Back of the net!


A few days ago, UNESCO announced that Norwich – regional capital of East Anglia in southern England – would be made an international City of Literature.  This is the first time this accolade has been given to an English city and only the sixth time it’s been given to a city anywhere – the previous five recipients being Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Iowa City and Reykjavik.


I was going to begin by saying that UNESCO’s decision will be welcomed by everyone who’s fed up with the common image that Norwich has in Britain, which is of being a dull, parochial backwater located in the middle of a region that’s remote, flat and populated by yokels.  Indeed, the negativity of Norwich’s image is summed up by the fact that among British people the city is best known for being the home of comedian Steve Coogan’s fictional alter-ego, the self-obsessed, pig-ignorant, Daily Mail-reading sociopath-cum-radio DJ Alan Partridge.  Mind you, I have rather spiked my own guns by using one of Partridge’s catchphrases – “Back of the net!” – in this entry’s title.


I’m pleased to hear this news as I’ve lived in Norwich in the past – I did an MA in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia there in 2008/09.  (Don’t panic, British taxpayers – I funded this MA entirely with my own money.)  Actually, Norwich is the third UNESCO City of Literature I’ve lived or worked in.  I also lived in Edinburgh at the end of the 1980s and again at the end of the 1990s and I briefly worked in Dublin in late 2004.  Will any other place I’ve been based in become a UNESCO literary city in the future?  Tunis?  Sapporo?  Newcastle?  Pyongyang?  Peebles?


Among those campaigning for Norwich to join the literary-city club was novelist Ian McEwan, an early graduate of the famous creative writing course run by the UEA.  McEwan recently praised Norwich by calling it a ‘dreamy city’.  Well, if McEwan had spent a year like I did living at the bottom end of the Prince of Wales Road, which contains pretty-much all the city’s nightclubs, late-licensed bars and kebab shops, he might’ve used a different adjective.  While I made my way home down the Prince of Wales Road late on a Friday or Saturday night, threading between innumerable brawls, scuffles, arguments, unconscious drunkards, puddles of sick, broken glass, cordoned-off crime scenes and paramedic teams, the word that sprang to mind regarding this particular bit of Norwich wasn’t so much ‘dreamy’ as ‘nightmarish’.


But other parts of the city are lovely and I can see how a nascent writer would find his or her muse there.  The banks of the River Wensum, the precincts of Norwich Cathedral, the cobbled Elm Hill area and the Lanes off the side of the Market Square are especially scenic and I was lucky that the cycling route I followed from my flat to the UEA campus every day took me through all of these areas.




And, considering Norwich’s size, I was surprised at how much there was going on culturally.  While the Theatre Royal served up populist stage and musical fare, more offbeat entertainment was to be found at Norwich Playhouse, Norwich Arts Centre, Maddermarket Theatre, the Puppet Theatre and the Platform Theatre.  The concert hall at the UEA wasn’t the best one I’d been in acoustics-wise, but I was impressed by the names it managed to attract during the year I studied there – among them, the Doves, Primal Scream, Motorhead, Florence and the Machine, Glasvegas and Pete Docherty.


Impressive too was the handsome city library housed (along with an exhibition area and the regional BBC TV headquarters) in the big new Forum building overlooking the Market Square.  And while there were the usual multiplex cinemas showing the usual blockbusters, I caught up with a lot of cool non-mainstream movies at the charming Cinema City on St Andrews Street.


I should also say that Norwich – once you get beyond the Prince of Wales Road – is blessed with some wonderful bars.  The Fat Cat, the Alexandria Tavern, the Golden Star, the King’s Head and the Coach and Horses would all, I think, make the Top 50 in Ian Smith’s World Guide to Great Pubs.



Obviously, the city’s biggest connection with literature is through the creative writing course at the UEA.  Apart from McEwan, its graduates include Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, Toby Litt and current wunderkind of Irish literature, Paul Murray.  And amongst those who’ve taught writing at the UEA is perhaps my biggest-ever literary heroine, the late Angela Carter.  How delighted I was when, in the university bookshop one day, an elderly assistant told me that she still remembered Carter making her way around the campus “in a big billowy dress…”


Giles Fodden, author of the amusing but depressing novel about Uganda during the Idi Amin years, The Last King of Scotland, teaches there just now.  His department was next door to the one I studied in.  In fact, while I was doing a secondary course in Media and Development, I suggested to the lecturer – who’d been banging on about how much she disliked the negative coverage that Africa received in the media – that she go and collar Fodden, drag him into our lecture-room and demand that he explain himself.  But alas, she didn’t.


Among the other links that the city and its hinterland have with writers…  Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials trilogy, is Norwich-born, while in the surrounding countryside Bill Bryson, who is best known for his travel books (but who also wrote an informative and entertaining history of American English called Made in America) currently resides in the old rectory in Wramplingham.  Victorian adventure-writer H. Rider Haggard, of King Solomon’s Mines and She fame, was born in Bradenham.  And Anna Sewell, authoress of the Black Beauty books that were made into a popular children’s TV show in the 1970s and into a movie in 1994, came from Norwich’s local seaside resort, Great Yarmouth.


Mention should be made too of venerable science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who’s a native of East Dereham 15 miles west of Norwich.  Aldiss’s odd little novel Brothers of the Head – the story of a pair of Siamese twins born in a remote East Anglian bog who end up fronting a rock band – was made into a movie in 2005.  Several locations in the north of the region were used for filming, including Barningham Hall, Cley Marshes and Blakeney Point.


So congratulations, Norwich – and well done, UNESCO, for making a surprising but wise decision.  And as I remarked earlier, I hope this will do a little to solve Norwich’s image problem in the United Kingdom.


Though having said that, I’m afraid I have to finish by providing a link to the only clip pertaining to Norwich and to books that I can find on Youtube.  Which is footage of Alan Partridge reading from his autobiography, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk about Alan, when it was launched at Waterstone’s bookshop in Norwich last year.


Adam Yauch / MCA: 1965 – 2012



One Thursday evening in early 1987, I sat down in front of my television to watch Top of the Pops, which at the time was the most popular showcase of popular music on British TV.  Come to think of it, it was almost the only showcase of popular music on TV at the time – this was before most people had access to satellite or cable television, which could pump 24-hour-a-day channels devoted to various genres of music into their living rooms.  In fact, most of the music shown on Top of the Pops was bland, middle-of-the-road, non-threatening, cheesy or plain terrible and I tended to sit through the programme in a semi-doze.  But, as I said, it was almost my only opportunity each week to see musicians performing songs that were currently high in the charts.


Anyway, I was suddenly jolted awake this evening when an obnoxious American voice yelled, “Yeah!” and then, “Kick it!”  This was followed by a chugging and wonderfully-stupid heavy-metal riff and a funny Three-Stooges-like video in which a trio of young hooligans invaded, disrupted and eventually destroyed a boring, preppy house party being held in New York, whilst continually shouting the refrain: “You gotta fight… for your right… to paaa-aaarty!”


Top of the Pops received complaints from concerned parents about the video and, typically timid, promised never to show it again.  However, the damage had already been done.  Fight for your Right to Party – for that was the song – was seared into my brain forever.  The Beastie Boys – Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), Mike D (Michael Diamond) and MCA (Adam Yauch) – had arrived.


Alas, it now looks like the Beastie Boys have departed, for yesterday it was announced that Adam Yauch has passed away from cancer of the salivary gland, a condition he’d been suffering from since 2009.  This came only a month after they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland – to date, only the third rap act to have been given this honour.


Despite the impression of the 1980s you might get now, from watching populist and nostalgic TV documentaries about the decade, or from listening to nostalgic collections harvested from the decade’s singles charts, there was actually a lot going on during the 1980s musically.  It wasn’t just about unspeakable New Romantic bands in eyeliner and shiny suits pratting around to neutered sub-funk guitar licks, dinky-sounding synthesisers and even dinkier-sounding drum machines.  A couple of years in, the 1980s had produced not only rap music, but house music, goth music, several new and more lethal brands of heavy metal and a slew of great indie bands.  Meanwhile, interesting things were starting to stir in northern cities in both Britain and America – Manchester in the former case, Seattle in the latter.  However, not being the musical anorak that I am now, I wasn’t aware of this diversity.  Getting my information from the mainstream newspaper press in Britain, and from Top of the Pops, I assumed that all that was happening music-wise were Duran bloody Duran and Spandau bloody Ballet.


Therefore, hearing Fight for your Right to Party and the Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed to Ill, on which it was the seventh track, was something of an awakening for me.  It made me realise that music was getting exciting again.


A loud, fast, brash and bratty confection of metal riffs (largely sampled from Led Zeppelin) and some pretty-obnoxious raps, Licensed to Ill quickly became the soundtrack to a million beer-fuelled fraternity parties in the USA and a million similarly drunken student parties in Europe.  It didn’t in any way suggest, however, that its three authors would be more than one-hit wonders.  Consequently, when its 1989 follow-up Paul’s Boutique failed to achieve anything like the same sales, music critics were happy to write them off.


In fact, Paul’s Boutique was a savagely underrated album, full of funky sounds that suggested the trio were willing both to experiment beyond the adolescent parameters of their first album and to do some serious growing up.  1992’s Check Your Head brought another new development – the Beastie Boys had learned to play their own instruments! – but it was the 1994 album Ill Communication that marked their comeback in the popularity stakes.  In fact, by now equally capable of serving up fuzzy, trippy guitar-instrumental tracks, short, shout-along thrash-metal standards and indescribable but fascinating items infused with samples from old blaxploitation-movie soundtracks, the Beastie Boys had become one of the coolest and most unpredictable musical acts on the planet.


Also by now, Yauch had converted to Buddhism and was shoehorning Buddhist themes into the Beastie Boys’ lyrics and Buddhist sounds into their music.  Some critics sneered at this, but the Buddhist dimension added to the bands’ ever-increasing palette of colours.


Later albums Hello Nasty (1998), To the Five Boroughs (2004) and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011) all had their moments, but in retrospect it’s clear that Ill Communication was their high-water mark.  In 1999 the band also found time to put together a hits-and-oddities anthology The Sounds of Science, which is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it includes.  For one thing, the absence of Fight for your Right to Party shows how keen Yauch, Diamond and Horovitz were to write their frat-brat origins out of their band’s history.


I got to see the Beastie Boys live only once, in 1995, but I’d rate their show as one of my top five gigs ever.  Ironically, I almost didn’t attend the concert.  They were performing at the Jasmac Plaza in the Japanese city of Sapporo, in whose Hokkai-Gakuen University I was working at the time as a lecturer.  Unfortunately, the show was due to begin at 7.00 PM – concerts in Japan tended to start when the tickets said they would – and the same evening I had to give a late lecture until 7.20 PM.  Plus I calculated that by the time I got from the university campus, which was in a district south of the city centre, to the Jasmac Plaza, which was downtown, the Beastie Boys would already be an hour into their gig.  So it didn’t seem worth it.


However, a few weeks before the concert, something odd happened.  It was announced that work had been completed on a new Sapporo subway line, which had a station called Gakuen-Mae directly below the campus where I was working.  I also discovered that the next station along the new line, Hosui-Suskino, had an exit that was only a block from the Jasmac Plaza.  And a subway train left for Hosui-Susukino from Gakuen-Mae every evening at 7.30.  I figured that if I caught the 7.30 train, and moved very fast, I could be at the concert hall in the Jasmac Plaza ten minutes later – hopefully not halfway through the Beastie Boys’ set, if they indeed started performing at 7.00.  Fate seemed to be telling me to buy a ticket, so I did.


That evening, I finished my lecture on the stroke of 7.20 and, once I was out of sight of the departing students, ran like hell for the subway station.  It seemed to have half-a-dozen escalators, descending deeper and deeper into the earth, and I charged down all of them.  The train was already at the platform and I ran and jumped through its about-to-close carriage doors like a fugitive being pursued by the police in an American urban crime thriller.  I sprang out of the train at Hosui-Susukino, ran up more escalators, ran along a city block into the Jasmac Plaza and up several stairs to its fourth floor, where the concert hall was.  I heard live rap music blasting out of speakers above me.


I ran into the hall, gasping for breath and leaking sweat down my university-lecturer’s shirt, suit and tie.  And I realised that the Beastie Boys weren’t on stage at all.  What I was hearing was a support act.  The trio themselves didn’t appear until forty minutes later.


But what the heck?  As I said above, it was a superb gig.


Thanks to Yauch’s passing, this video on Youtube will no doubt be viewed a zillion times this weekend.  It’s for Sabotage, their big hit off Ill Communication, and probably the song that will do for their memory what Smoke on the Water did for Deep Purple or Stairway to Heaven did for Led Zeppelin.  (As if already aware of this, on the night I saw them in Sapporo, the Beastie Boys worked the Smoke on the Water riff into their performance of Sabotage.  But I always thought Sabotage was vastly more entertaining than that clumping Deep Purple dirge.)


And just in case you’ve forgotten it, here’s the video accompanying the song that awoke me from my Tops of the Pops-induced stupor in 1987.  Yeah!  Kick it!


Tunisia celebrates World Press Freedom Day by fining a TV station


D’oh!  With the sort of disastrous timing that normally only Homer Simpson would be capable of, the new post-dictatorship, post-revolutionary Tunisia showed the world what a beacon of democracy, freedom and tolerance it has now become by fining Nabil Karoui, owner of the Nessma television station, 2400 dinar (about 1000 pounds) yesterday.  Coincidentally, that day, May 3rd, happened to be World Press Freedom Day.  (


Last year, Karoui allowed his station to broadcast the 2007 French-Iranian film Persepolis, something that upset a number of upstanding Tunisian citizens.  In the past 16 months, many of these same citizens have demonstrated their upstanding-ness by threatening to attack cinemas for showing other films that they disapprove of, by threatening to burn down cafes that serve food during Ramadan, by hassling women in the streets for not being of the right appearance or exhibiting the right dress-sense, and so on.


Karoui managed to be philosophical about yesterday’s verdict, pointing out that it could have been a lot worse.  For instance, he didn’t end up in jail, as had been demanded by the Salafists – for yes, it was the bearded, robed and sneakered ones who had spearheaded the campaign against him and his TV station.  Some of them had even been calling for his execution.


The Salafists’ beef against Persepolis is that one of its scenes shows the face of God, which in their view is sacrilegious.  However, I can think of plenty of other movies over the years that have shown God.  Off the top of my head, I can cite the Time Bandits, Oh God, Bruce Almighty, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Acid House, Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back – at least some of which, I’m sure, have been available in Tunis’s usually well-stocked DVD stores at one time or other.


The irony of this verdict being passed on World Press Freedom Day is by no means the only one here.  Most local commentators seem to have missed the irony that post-revolutionary religious extremists in Tunisia should be frothing at the mouth about a movie telling the story of how post-revolutionary religious extremists took over in Iran.  Also ironic is the fact that Nabil Karoui was prosecuted under Article 101 of the penal code, which had been created by the hated old regime in 2001 as yet another way of locking up people whose opinions they didn’t like.


One final irony is that May 3rd was also the day that controversial Islamic cleric, scholar and talk-show host Youssef Al Qaradawi arrived in Tunisia, as a guest of the majority Islamist party Ennahdha.  A good few people in Tunisia would find some of Al Qaradawi’s past utterances offensive too, although as yet nobody has tried to bring the Ennahdha leadership to court for inviting him.  (


Among other things, Al Qaradawi has stated that it is okay for suicide bombers to kill pregnant Israeli women; Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was only part of Allah’s will (and they exaggerated the whole episode anyway); the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s life was a good thing; homosexuality is a crime punishable by death; and wife-beating and female circumcision are justifiable under certain circumstances.  (  All right, I’m being selective here, and in fact Al Qaradawi has said other things that seem quite reasonable – but those who would condemn Persepolis out of hand on the basis of one brief scene are being a lot more selective than I am.


For the record, I think that in the spirit of freedom of speech it’s acceptable to invite Al Qaradawi to Tunisia, just as I think it’s acceptable for Nessma TV to broadcast Persepolis.  Since the old regime was kicked out last year, Tunisians have found themselves in the intoxicating position of being free – for the most part – to voice their own opinions, which is part of what democracy’s about.  Unfortunately, another part of what democracy’s about is having to listen to other people’s opinions, opinions you don’t necessarily agree with, and learning to put up with them.  That second bit, a lot of people in the government, in the religious and legal institutions, and on the streets here haven’t quite mastered yet.  But if the new Tunisia is going to be better than the old Tunisia, they will need to master it.


Inevitably, the international news media has now picked up on the Nessma TV debacle and it will further tarnish the country’s image abroad.  (  However, I would like to end this entry on a positive note, so I will mention a recent event that didn’t get much international publicity, though it should have done.  This Tuesday – May 1st, International Labour Day – saw big marches by Tunisia’s trade unions, liberals, left-wingers and secularists.  One of the sites for these was Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the middle of Tunis, which had been the scene of trouble between protesters and riot police on April 9th and April 7th, as well as the scene of aggro between Salafists (again) and Tunisia’s mad, bad and dangerous-to-know national Association for Drama Arts back on March 25th.


Gratifyingly, however, the show of strength by leftward and liberal-leaning Tunisia on May 1st passed off peacefully.  (  The only injury I heard of was that received by a Tunisian associate of mine, who complained the next day that during the march on Habib Bourguiba Avenue he’d suffered sunburn on his sizeable bald-patch.


Chances with wolves: film review / The Grey


In an effort to add some cultural variety to this blog, I’ve decided to publish the occasional film and book review on it.  Here’s the first of these.



It’s said that the tastiest meals are the ones cobbled together from yesterday’s leftovers.  Released earlier this year, The Grey – starring Liam Neeson, directed by Joe Carnahan and produced by (amongst others) the blockbuster-movie-making Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley – has ingredients that have obviously been lifted from several old thriller and horror dishes in the cinematic refrigerator.  But it manages to be a filling and nourishing dish in itself, even if the taste it leaves in the mouth is far from sweet.


Neeson plays Ottway, a marksman who works for an oil company in the Alaskan north, protecting oil workers from natural predators while they toil amid the snow.  Finishing a work-shift, Ottway joins a planeload of off-duty workers flying to Anchorage.  However, en route, the plane crashes in the middle of nowhere and only Ottway and half-a-dozen others survive.  They then have to traverse miles of uninhabited and freezing snow-plains, forests, rivers and mountains in the tenuous hope of reaching civilisation.  Unfortunately, they not only have to contend with the elements, but with a murderous pack of grey wolves, whose breeding territory they have landed in the middle of.  Pissed off at these human intruders, the wolves prowl behind them and along the fringes of their vision, intent on picking them off one by one.


The twist is that Ottway – thanks to a recent trauma in his personal life – was on the point of suicide before boarding the plane.  Yet when faced with killer wolves and the prospect of hypothermia, he becomes determined to keep himself and his co-workers alive.  However, it soon becomes clear that their mental and physical frailties are as much of a threat to their survival as the wolves are.


Even from this brief synopsis, it’s easy to see borrowings from earlier films.  The plane-of-oilmen-downed-in-the-wilderness scenario brings to mind Robert Aldrich’s 1965 adventure classic The Flight of the Phoenix, while watching the characters struggle through an unrelentingly hostile and claustrophobic icy setting it’s impossible not to think of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing.  The wolves, who unlike their human quarry are obviously at home in the environment, remain unseen for long stretches of the film and their invisible but continually-lurking presence ticks a couple of other movie boxes – the malevolent hillbillies in John Boorman’s Deliverance, for instance, or the vengeful Cajun hunters in Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort.  And the flesh-crawling wolf-howls that pepper the film’s soundtrack have, of course, featured in half of the gothic horror movies ever made.


But despite the familiarity of these plot elements, Carnahan and his cast do a very good job.  They don’t put a foot wrong in building up tension and atmosphere, and the unpredictably of what is going to happen next, and to whom, adds to the suspense.  (Though at one point a character did deliver an emotional and revealing speech that enabled me to guess how he would exit the movie later on.)  However, the escalating horror of the men’s plight – surviving a devastating air-crash, then battling hunger and hypothermia, and then having to withstand wolf attacks – will be too gruelling for some viewers.  Even the venerable and presumably battle-hardened American film critic Roger Ebert confessed that after seeing The Grey he was too upset to watch any more movies that day.


Some critics have mentioned the film’s philosophical tone.  There’s a throwaway reference to the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man – Werner Herzog’s elegiac but disturbing meditation on humanity’s place amid nature – and the characters have a few discussions about What It All Means between wolf assaults.  However, the philosophising doesn’t reach any conclusions beyond the ones that life sucks and that God’s a bastard if He exists at all.  Which are probably the conclusions I would come to in the same circumstances.


Carnahan is well served by his cast, whose faces (apart from Neeson’s) aren’t well-known, adding to their believability as ordinary Joes dumped in a horrendous situation.  (Dermot Mulroney plays one of them, admittedly, but I didn’t recognise him.  He’s aged a bit since the days of Young Guns.)  Neeson himself is extremely good.  In the past I haven’t rated him that much as an actor, mainly because of his thick Northern Irish brogue that dogs him no matter what character he plays – Germans (Schindler’s List), Scotsmen (Rob Roy), Jedi knights (The Phantom Menace), they all sound like they’ve just stepped off a bus from Ballymena in County Antrim.  But he brings a real intensity to the role of Ottway.  At the beginning of the movie he agonises over whether or not to stick his rifle-barrel in his mouth and end it all, while much later he bellows in fury at the sky and at a seemingly sadistic God, sounding like a disenchanted Reverend Ian Paisley.  One can’t help but wonder if this intensity comes from the similarities between Ottway’s back-story and the snowy landscape and the tragedy that befell Neeson in real life in Quebec in 2009.


There’s one criticism I have to make, however, concerning the film’s portrayal of wolves as ruthless and relentless killers.  This has infuriated American environmentalists, who’ve pointed out that the grey wolf is really a shy creature and a human passing through its territory would run a greater risk of being struck by lightning than being bitten by one.  (As the grey wolf has recently been removed from the Endangered Species Act in several western American states, and as a recent candidate for the office of American Vice President had a well-publicised fondness for shooting wolves from helicopters, environmentalists are understandably touchy about the subject at the moment.)  And I have to say that the behaviour and intelligence displayed by the wolves in The Grey seem unlikely in the extreme – at times, with Ottway talking ominously about breeding dens and about an ‘alpha male’ wolf that appears to be orchestrating the mayhem, it sounds like the wolves have spent their free time studying a DVD of James Cameron’s Aliens.  Furthermore, during the attack sequences, they appear so pumped-up, slavering and generally monstrous that they look less like wolves than like the beastie in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London.


Here’s what the website has to say about the matter:


Wolves are my favourite wild animal, so I’m not that happy myself about how they are depicted here.  But I guess that if film studios had always tried to treat people and animals fairly, an awful lot of classic movies would never have been made.  If, for example, Hollywood had been sensitive towards the feelings of Italian-Americans, we wouldn’t have got the Godfather movies, or Mean Streets, or Goodfellas.  If British filmmakers had respected the sensibilities of the Zulu nation, we wouldn’t have got that marvellous action epic Zulu in 1964.  And if Steven Spielberg had wanted to be nice to sharks, Jaws wouldn’t have swum our way in 1976.  So I will forgive The Grey for its wolf-demonisation because it’s a quality film – if a zoologically inaccurate one.


And as much as I like wolves, I would still really hate it if I found myself at a plane-crash site in northern Alaska surrounded by the bloody things.


As a footnote, I should mention that near the end of the film, Liam Neeson’s character says that his first name is John.  His name’s Ottway, John Ottway!  At this point I laughed – indeed, it was the first laugh I’d had since the film’s grim litany of aircrash-carnage and wolf-killings began.  The name won’t mean anything to international audiences, or to 99.9% of British ones, but John Otway is the name of an obscure, punky and eccentric-bordering-on-insane singer-songwriter from Buckinghamshire in England.  His song Really Free was a minor hit in Britain in 1977 (  He didn’t have another hit until 25 years later, in 2002, when he reached number 9 in the British singles charts with an effort called Bunsen Burner (  The real John Otway, then, could teach Liam Neeson a thing or two about survival in the wilderness.